- "I've been given a body …", and: Notre Dame, and: Hagia Sophia, and: "To empty earth falling unwilled …"
"I've been given a body ..."
I've been given a body. What should I do with it,So singular, so my own?
For this joy, quiet, to live and breathe,Who, tell me, am I to thank?
I am gardener, but flower too;In the world's dungeon I am not alone.
On the windowpanes of eternity,My breath, my warmth has already settled.
On it a pattern is pressed,Unrecognizable of late.
Even if moment's gloom streams down—The pattern, so dear, won't be crossed out!
Where the Roman justice judged a foreign people,Stands the basilica; first and joyous,Just like Adam, with nerves stretching,The vault, a cross of air, flexes its muscles.
But outside a secret plan emerges:Here labored the strength of arching stoneSo the freighted mass won't crush the walls,And the cocky vault's battering ram is still.
Elemental labyrinth, inscrutable forest,The gothic soul's rationalized abyss, [End Page 91] Egyptian awe and Christian timidity,Reed by oak and plumb-line's king of all.
But, citadel of Notre Dame, the closerI studied your preternatural ribs,The more I thought: from crude weightSomeday I too will fashion the beautiful.
Hagia Sophia—Lord decreedNations and kings shall stop here!Truly your cupola hangs, in the words of a witness,As if by a chain from the heavens.
And for the ages, Justinian's example:When Diana of Ephesus allowedOne hundred and seven green marble pillarsTo be plundered for foreign gods.
But what was your generous maker thinking,When, in soul and concept high,He arranged apses and exhedrae,Directing them West and East?
Beautiful temple, bathed in the world,And forty windows—a triumph of light;On the spandrels, beneath the cupola, fourArchangels—most beautiful of all.
And the wise, spherical buildingWill outlast nations and ages,And the seraphims' resonant sobsWon't warp dark gilt.
“To empty earth falling unwilled ...”
To empty earth falling unwilled,With sweet uneven gait, she goes, [End Page 92] Just barely keeping aheadOf a quick girl and young brother.She is propelled by the stifled freedomOf inspiring deficiency;And, perhaps, a lucent conjectureDelaying in her gait:About how spring's weatherIs, for us, mother to the tomb,And this, eternal, ever begins.
These poems are reprinted with permission from Charles Bernstein and Kevin Platt, eds., Modernist Archaist: Selected Poems by Osip Mandelstam (Whale and Star Press, 2008).
Charles Bernstein's books include Blind Witness: Three American Operas (Factory School), new in 2008; Girly Man (University of Chicago Press), now in paperback; and Shadowtime (Green Integer), libretto for an opera on Benjamin. He is Donald T. Regan Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. More info: epc.buffalo.edu. The poems in this issue were first published in Modernist Archaist: Selected Poems by Osip Mandelstam (Whale and Star Press) and are used by the permission of the translators.
Kevin M. F. Platt is the editor of Modernist Archaist: Selected Poems by Osip Mandelstam, just out from Whale and Star Press, in which the poems in this issue were first published. He teaches Russian and Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. His scholarship focuses on Russian history and culture, with particular interest in poetry and poetics. He is the author of History in a Grotesque Key: Russian Literature and the Idea of Revolution.