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Osip Mandelstam 313  Osip Mandelstam (1891–1938) “Insomnia. Homer. Taut sails.” Insomnia. Homer. Taut sails. I’ve read down the ships to the middle of the list: the strung-out flock, the stream of cranes that once rose above Hellas. Flight of cranes crossing strange borders, leaders drenched with the foam of the gods, where are you sailing? What would Troy be to you, men of Achaea, without Helen? The sea—Homer—it’s all moved by love. But to whom shall I listen? No sound now from Homer, and the black sea roars like a speech and thunders up the bed. Tristia I have studied the science of good-byes, the bare-headed laments of night. The waiting lengthens as the oxen chew. In the town the last hour of the watch. And I have bowed to the knell of night in the rooster’s throat when eyes red with crying picked up their burden of sorrow and looked into the distance and the crying of women and the Muses’ song became one. Who can tell from the sound of the word “parting” what kind of bereavements await us, what the rooster promises with his loud surprise when a light shows in the acropolis, dawn of a new life the ox still swinging his jaw in the outer passage, 314 Russian or why the rooster, announcing the new life, flaps his wings on the ramparts? A thing I love is the action of spinning: the shuttle fluttering back and forth, the hum of the spindle, and look, like swan’s down floating toward us, Delia, the barefoot shepherdess, flying— o indigence at the root of our lives, how poor is the language of happiness! Everything’s happened before and will happen again, but still the moment of each meeting is sweet. Amen. The little transparent figure lies on the clean earthen plate like a squirrel skin being stretched. A girl bends to study the wax. Who are we to guess at the hell of the Greeks? Wax for women, bronze for men: our lot falls to us in the field, fighting, but to them death comes as they tell fortunes. “We shall meet again, in Petersburg,” We shall meet again, in Petersburg, as though we had buried the sun there, and then we shall pronounce for the first time the blessed word with no meaning. In the Soviet night, in the velvet dark, in the black velvet Void the loved eyes of blessed women are still singing, flowers are blooming that will never die. The capital hunches like a wild cat, a patrol is stationed on the bridge, a single car rushes past in the dark, Osip Mandelstam 315  snarling, hooting like a cuckoo. For this night I need no pass. I’m not afraid of the sentries. I will pray in the Soviet night for the blessed word with no meaning. A rustling, as in a theater, and a girl suddenly crying out, and the arms of Cypris are weighed down with roses that will never fall. For something to do we warm ourselves at a bonfire, maybe the ages will die away and the loved hands of blessed women will brush the light ashes together. Somewhere audiences of red flowers exist, and the fat sofas of the loges, and a clockwork officer looking down on the world. Never mind if our candles go out in the velvet, in the black Void. The bowed shoulders of the blessed women are still singing. You’ll never notice the night’s sun. “Armed with the sight of the fine wasps” Armed with the sight of the fine wasps sucking at the earth’s axis, the earth’s axis, I recall each thing that I’ve had to meet, I remember it by heart, and in vain. I do not draw or sing or ply the dark-voiced bow. I make a little hole in life. How I envy the strength and cunning of the wasps! 316 Russian Oh if only once the sting of the air and the heat of summer could make me hear beyond sleep and death the earth’s axis, the earth’s axis. W. S. Merwin and Clarence Brown, 1972 ...


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