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  • He Who Had Found a Horseshoe
  • Osip Mandelstam (bio)
    —translated from the Russian by Alex Cigale

A Pindaric fragment

We look at the forest and say:Here is the forest, ship-timbered, mast-like,The pink-fleshed pines,Stripped bare to the very tops of their furry tangle,They ought to creak in the tempest,With their lonely trunks,In the furious unforested air;Under the salty heel of the wind the stand stays erect,          that was mitered to the reeling deck.

And the seafarer,In the unbridled thirst of the vast space,Dragging over the watery rutsThe fragile instrument of the geometer,Will compare the pull of the earth’s foldWith the sloughing surface of the sea.

And inhaling the odorOf pine-tar tears that seep through the ship’s planking,Marveling at the boards,Cobbled and fitted together into bulkheadsNot by the peaceful Bethlehem carpenter but by that other—The father of wandering, friend of the seafarer,We say—They too stood upon the earth,Uncomfortable, like the backbone of an ass,Their crowns having forgotten their roots,On the renowned mountain crest,And made a racket under the freshwater downpour,Futilely offering the sky to trade a pinch of saltFor their noble cargo.

Where to begin?Everything creaks and sways.The air trembles from comparisons.Not one word better than another, [End Page 131] The earth hums with metaphor,And the light two-wheeled chariotsboldly harnessed to the thick-with-effort flocks of birdsRupture into fragments,Trying to compete with the snorting favorites of the hippodromes.

Thrice blessed is he who invokes in his song a name;The song embellished by the nameSurvives longer among the others—It is set apart from its playmates by a band across its forehead,Which protects against forgetting, the overwhelmingly strong smell ofbewitchment—

Whether it is the proximity of man,Or the smell of the fur of a wild beast,Or simply the spirit of savory, ground between the palms.

The air is at times dark, like water, and everything alive in it swims, like fish,Pushing its medium aside with fins,Dense, resisting, slightly warmed—Crystal, in which the wheels are spinning and horses scramble,The moist black humus of Neaira, each night turned over anewWith pitchforks, rakes, hoes, plows.The air is just as densely kneaded as the earth—Out of it one cannot emerge, and it is difficult to enter.

A rustle scampers over the trees with its green clogs,The children are playing jacks with the vertebrae of dead animals.The fragile chronicle of our era is coming to an end.I am grateful for that which was.I myself was in error, became confused, lost count.The era was ringing, like a golden orb,Inflated, formed in a mold, supported by no one,Answering each and every contact with a “yes” and “no”.Just so a child answers:“I will give you an apple”—or: “I will not give you an apple.”His face—an exact duplicate of the voice that pronounces these words.

The sound still reverberates, though the source of the sound has vanished.The stallion lies in the dust and snorts in its lather,But the sharp articulation of its neckStill conserves the memory of its gallop with the legs ascatter—When they were not four in numberBut complemented the count of stones in the field, [End Page 132] Renewed on schedule, in four shift changes,Corresponding to the propulsions away from the earthOf the maverick perspiring and chuffing.

In this wayHe who finds a horseshoeBlows the dust from itAnd polishes it with wool, until it shines;Then hangs it over the threshold,That it may rest,And no longer need to strike a spark from the flint.

Human lips,            that no longer have anything to say,Preserve the shape of the last word uttered,And the hand retains the sensation of weight,Even though the pitcher                            has half-splattered                                                        while being carried home.

That which I am now saying is being said not by meBut is exhumed from under the earth, like fossilized grains of...


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pp. 131-133
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